One of the things that’s always fascinated me about people, and by extension writing, is the fact we all see the world through our own eyes. On the surface that may not seem astounding or provocative to anyone else, but let’s examine it a little deeper for a moment.
You’re walking on the sidewalk of a busy street in your town when a fender bender happens at the intersection ahead of you. Dozens of people saw the accident, including yourself, yet if all those people are separately asked to recount the details of the incident, a wide variety of stories will emerge. Some accounts will even directly conflict in certain details of the event, like the colors of the cars or who was at fault. All the people witnessed the same incident at the same time and all are telling the truth — at least, the truth as they saw it. (Here’s a short, interesting exercise in eyewitness fallibility if you’d like to learn more.)
How does this pertain to writing? Storytelling is all about perspective. Who is telling the story? What is their age, their background? Were they an active participant or did they merely observe it? These questions pertain to the narrator and are fundamentally important to how a story gets told. Writers also have tools like tense (present or past) to manipulate how a story is conveyed to the reader. Think of the possibilities like a nesting doll.
Third Person Omniscient is the outermost doll. This one encompasses all the rest. It sees and knows everything. Heroes, bad guys, this viewpoint can get inside anyone’s head and find out what’s really going on. (Just don’t try to do it all at once!)
Third Person Limited is represented by the next couple of layers, depending on the number of narrators. Some books are told from multiple characters, yet each one can only present the story from their own perspective. Other books have only one narrator who only imparts information that they know to the reader. While we can often see inside this narrator’s head, the third person perspective still positions the reader as an observer from the outside.
First Person, Past Tense introduces the next level of intimacy. The story is told to the reader directly from the mouth of the main character. Thoughts and emotions, as well as observations are shared, but strictly from the viewpoint of that character.
First Person, Present Tense is the deepest level of reader/narrator connection. The reader lives the story, moment to moment, just as the protagonist does. Everything is immediate and the technique works well for action scenes, but can seem unnatural or forced during quieter, more mundane sections.
As a writer, this last choice might seem to be the best to engage a reader and it can work to great effect. A recent, popular example is The Hunger Games. But this perspective can be extremely limiting as well. An example of this can be seen in the movie version of The Hunger Games where they added scenes with the President conversing with his staff in order to supply some back story and create more tension.
To stick with only one viewpoint can elevate our empathy for the main character, but it’s also easy to lose sight of the forest amongst the trees. I believe this is a main reason why first person narratives are more predominant and popular in middle grade and young adult literature. As we grow, we first develop a sense of self before gaining an awareness of others. In my opinion, it’s easier for young readers to identify with a first person narrator because that’s how they view the world. Things that occur outside the sphere of awareness of children are largely ignored. A missed dessert because of an unfinished plate of vegetables can be high drama for a toddler or even a first or second grader. Everything can be a sign of the apocalypse, even for those in their teens — which is also a reason why I think dystopians are so popular with the younger crowd as well, but that’s a subject for a different blog post
The story you want to tell will often lead you to your choice of perspective. If the action is centered entirely around a single character, first person might be an excellent fit. If you have a larger cast of important folks, some version of third person may be a better vehicle to work with. The main thing to remember is no one has a monopoly on the truth. We all carry our own versions of it and experience things in personal, unique ways.
I’ll leave you with a short animated video featuring a singing Obi Wan and Yoda, explaining “a certain point of view” to a bemused Luke. Take care and go out and find your own truths today!
Alan Tucker , author of The Mother-Earth Series (A Measure of Disorder, A Cure for Chaos, and Mother’s Heart), as well as a new science fiction novel, Knot in Time, is a dad, a graphic designer, and a soccer coach. Mostly in that order. He’s had a lifelong adoration of books, beginning with Encyclopedia Brown, progressing through Alan Dean Foster’s Flinx, and continuing on with the likes of Jim Butcher, Rachel Caine and Naomi Novik, to name a few.
“I wanted to write books that I’d enjoy reading. Books that I hoped my kids would enjoy too!”
Visit his website for more information about his books. View maps, watch trailers, see reviews and much more!
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